Maternal mortality rates in the U.S. are much higher than statistics show, and birth interventions are often responsible. Beginning today, the Mother’s Advocate Blog is presenting a 3-part series about maternal mortality — the ultimate price of unnecessary interventions. This week, Maddy Oden shares the tragic story of her daughter and granddaughter’s deaths, and how she’s raising awareness about maternal mortality.
Tell me a little bit about your personal experiences with birth, and how they inspired you to become a birth advocate.
I had three of my own children, and all were natural births in a hospital — they were beautiful births. I had also been at many births of my relatives and friends. Then, my daughter was induced with cytotec — she died as a result, and my granddaughter died with her. I then became determined to make sure that cytotec (which, although was a standard of care for inducing labor wasn’t approved by the FDA to induce labor — it was approved for treating ulcers), wasn’t used anymore. I became an advocate because of what happened to my daughter, and subsequently found out that she wasn’t the only one. A lot of women have adverse effects from being induced by cytotec, up to and including death. I formed the Tatia Oden French Memorial Foundation in honor of my daughter, and in my pursuit of making sure cytotec is not used.
These events also led me on a path to become a doula. I have since attended a number of births to ensure that what happened to my daughter doesn’t happen to anyone else. My goal is to be at any birth I can, and to make sure it’s a safe one.
The prevalence of maternal mortality isn’t something that most women are aware of. Why does this need to change?
It needs to change because women in the U.S. don’t know about it. It needs to change because it happens a lot. Maternal mortality doesn’t happen as much (thank God) as cesarean sections, but it still happens a lot. One of the largest problems is that maternal mortality isn’t reported as much as it happens — the statistics are skewed. We know that many causes of maternal mortality are created by the medicalization of birth — the use of technology and interventions — but until all maternal deaths are reported and investigated thoroughly, women will never know the true incidence. My daughter’s death wouldn’t have occurred if we had known about cytotec. Women need to be aware of the incidence of maternal mortality, and know that as soon as interventions begin, their chances increase.
What is the most rewarding result you’ve achieved from all of the work you’ve put in to standing up for birthing mothers and their babies?
Babies being born healthy and un-medicated. And moms having an un-medicated birth, no matter where it is.
How does being a doula bring your journey and quest for safe and healthy birth full-circle?
Well, for one thing, if I knew what I know about birth now in 2001 when my daughter died, she wouldn’t have.
Also, when I’m in a position when I have to be present at a cytotec birth, I can be there with the mother, to ride out the gamut of effects. When a mother is in the hospital and cytotec is administered to soften her cervix, the nurses can’t sit there and watch her. The machines they’ll hook a woman up to really do pick up most everything that’s going on, but humans have to be watching the machines to prevent complications or an emergency. As a doula, I sit there, and when breathing or contractions are slamming a woman against the wall, I can call in the medical team and they can react much more quickly — preventing complications and saving the lives of both mom and baby. I can (try to) make sure the mother doesn’t die.
Regardless of cytotec, if I can decrease the intensity of a mother’s contractions through all the means we have — changing positions, herbs, heat, walking around, soaking in a tub, using acupressure — that to me is also very rewarding, and brings it full-circle, because nobody could (or did) do that for my daughter.
Tell me about the Safe Motherhood Quilt Project, and how you’ve since become allies with some of birth advocacy’s most prominent supporters?
When my daughter died, my son-in-law was on the Internet a lot, and found the Safe Motherhood Quilt Project. He asked me to make a square for Tatia, so I reached out to The Farm Midwifery Center to get the specifics of the square. Weeks went by, and between the grief and forming my nonprofit foundation, I just couldn’t make it. I called The Farm back, and gave them my apologies.
Ina May (Gaskin) later called me up, told me that she had made a square for Tatia, and asked if she could stop by and show me, as she was going to be in California. Ina May and I ended up having tea and chatting for hours, and in the process, I asked her if the quilt was on display any other places than in Tennessee — I wanted to have it displayed in Oakland. She suggested I call the Mayor’s office, so I did, and he ended up paying for an entire maternal mortality event at the Oakland Museum. Ina May and Dr. (Marsden) Wagner spoke, and about 300 people attended. I believe it helped bring the issue of maternal mortality into public view.
Afterward, both Ina May and Dr. Wagner agreed to be on my foundation’s board, and I help Ina May reach out to families who have suffered a loss from maternal mortality (about making quilt squares or to simply console). We work together to provide support to families in need.
What is the next step?
What is definitely needed in the U.S. is a uniform death certificate, although there’s bound to be political pushback. The Center for Disease Control estimates that maternal mortality is four times higher than reported. So, there needs to be a mandatory box on the death certificate in every state that designates whether a woman was pregnant at her time of death. If the box is checked, a mandatory, thorough investigation into the cause of death should occur. It’s the only way statistics will ever be correct, and the true causes of maternal death will be known — which is the only way maternal mortality will ever decrease. When my daughter died, California didn’t have box — so she wasn’t counted as a mother who died in childbirth.
Also, women need to know that we can birth our own babies, even catch our own babies — and that complications arise, but not nearly as much as they say. We’re not taught that birth is a natural process, so research needs to be put out there, alternatives and options presented, and if nothing else — we need to learn to trust in birth.
Maddy Oden, birth and community advocate, is mother to three children, Tatia, Marcus and Kofi, and grandmother to seven grandchildren. She is the founder and executive director of The Tatia Oden French Memorial Foundation a doula, and a hospice volunteer.
Mother’s Advocate wants to facilitate a safe and supportive community for birth advocates, educators, and expectant mothers. You’re welcome to share any thoughts about or experiences with maternal mortality.